Busy Beaks by Sarah Allen

Inside the 2021 CBCA Shortlist

Most books shortlisted for the 2021 CBCA Book of the Year: Early Childhood award are fiction. Busy Beaks by Sarah Allen (Affirm Press) has broken the mould in fine style. It is a superb non-fiction picture book about Australian birds.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Sarah.

Congratulations on Busy Beaks being shortlisted for the 2021 CBCA awards.

Thank you, Joy. It’s such an honour.

Why have you called the book Busy Beaks?

Birds are always up to something! I love watching them go about their daily business and I wanted to capture this in the title. 

You begin the book with a vibrant and sensory spread about cockatoos. Why have you chosen to feature these birds first and with such drama?

It was important for me to start the book with an iconic Australian bird and I couldn’t go past noisy Sulphur-crested Cockatoos screeching across the sky. I have a vivid memory of huge mobs of cockatoos on my morning walks in the Grampians region of Victoria. I’ve added a pink sunrise to show hot summer mornings. 

How have you sequenced the book?

Busy Beaks follows a sunrise to sunset sequence. For most of the species, I show them doing something that I’ve observed in real life. I put the activities in order based on the time of day that it would typically happen. With some species, it was essential to have them appear at certain stages in the day. For example, the Little Penguins waddle across the beach when it’s dark and the Powerful Owl comes out at night.

You have distilled much possible information about each bird into perfectly selected snippets of information. How were you able to select and write this so well for young children?

Thank you, that’s a huge compliment. 

I initially wrote a draft of the book in an A-Z format. I’d worked out what I wanted to say about each species but realised it would be better in a dawn to dusk arc. When I re-wrote the text to fit the new sequence, I was able to edit it down into shorter sentences.

Why have you included the Latin names and was there much deliberation about this?

I was aware that many children and adults reading the book might not know the names of the species in the book. We included the common names and scientific names of species to help readers of any age to identify birds. This also enables readers to research and cross-reference with other sources. I was confident the naming of species would add value, so there wasn’t much deliberation about this. I’m happy to say we’ve had lots of positive feedback from readers about this.

I love how you have included some habitat to show where the birds live, without taking the focus from the birds themselves. All the illustrations are great but which page do you think is most successful and why?

The spread featuring budgies and pardalotes might be one of the most successful. It shows that it’s the end of the day and time to drift off to sleep. I’ve shown a community of budgies roosting in a dead tree in the desert and pardalote chicks snuggled in their nest. Pardalotes are such amazing and unusual birds. They tunnel into the ground to build an underground next for their chicks.

Brolgas in Busy Beaks by Sarah Allen (Affirm Press)

You probably like all these birds because you have included them in the book, but which would you like to highlight here and why?

It’s true; I love all the birds in the book! I’ll choose two that are directly from my life and observations. In the later stage of artwork development, I went birding with my friend Dominique and we saw a pair of brolgas for the first time. It was so exciting! They were a late substitute, but I just had to put them in the book.

I live next to Princes Park and am lucky enough to occasionally see a Tawny Frogmouth that naps up high in an oak tree during the day. Whenever I walk past, I always look up, hoping to spot it.

Tawny Frogmouth in Busy Beaks by Sarah Allen (Affirm Press)

What media and process have you used for your illustrations?

I used an iPad Pro with Procreate for most of my drawing. I then add in handmade collage and textures with Photoshop for extra depth.

What is the significance of your illustrations on the endpapers?

The eggs featured in the endpapers are the eggs of the birds featured in the book.

What is your background in the visual arts and how did this lead to your book being published by Affirm Press?

I studied visual arts in the ’90s and then worked in graphic and web design for over a decade. About ten years ago, I became brave enough to pursue a career in illustration and have been working on that solidly ever since. A couple of years ago, Davina Bell became aware of my work and we got in touch. When I had the idea for Busy Beaks, I submitted my manuscript and sample artwork to Affirm Press and luckily, it was successful. I feel very fortunate to be working with Meg Whelan and the team at Affirm Press. 

What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year: Early Childhood award this year had on you or this book?

I’m very honoured that the book was shortlisted. It’s given the biggest boost to my confidence and reassures me that I’m on the right track.

How would you like to see Busy Beaks used in schools, homes or early childhood centres?

I love getting feedback from people on how they are using the book. Beyond reading it as a story, I’ve seen people using it as a reference for bird watching, a discussion point about adaptation and habitats, and inspiration for a range of art activities.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my next title with Affirm Press.

What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?

I read a lot of non-fiction picture books and love this genre. A new favourite is With a Little Kelp from Our Friends, The Secret Life of Seaweed: History, Culture and Environment by Mathew Bate and Liz Rowland.

Sarah Allen

How can your readers contact you?

Readers are welcome to contact me by email sarah@sarahallen.com.au

Thank you for your interest in Busy Beaks.

Thank you very much for speaking about Busy Beaks, Sarah. I am delighted to have discovered your work and talent through the CBCA award and Affirm Press this year.

Busy Beaks at Affirm Press

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